Making a home on water

Liveaboards: Does life lack pizazz? A houseboat may be the ticket, but you needn't go overboard. You can decorate in French Provencal, take a decent bath.

August 22, 1999|By Rachel Sams | Rachel Sams,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

She was just a few years from retirement, living in a comfortable apartment at her sister's house. But Catherine Hall was restless.

"Especially for women at my time of life, there's a need to kind of reinvent yourself -- not go along with what the norm is, but find something a little unique," the 64-year-old said.

She found what she was looking for in the gentle motion of the Chesapeake Bay, in the 39-foot-by-14-foot space she's made her own, in the home she's christened with a name that symbolizes what it has meant to her: Sea Change.

Catherine Hall is one of America's thousands of "liveaboards" -- people young and old, rich and not-so-rich, professionals and retirees, who give up their lawns and garages to live full time on their boats.

Linda Ridihalgh, editor of Living Aboard magazine, said a survey the magazine did about 10 years ago found some 30,000 live-aboards, and she believes the number has grown since then. The magazine has a circulation of about 10,000.

While Hall had never been a boater, the more she thought about living on the water, the more it sounded like the kind of change she was looking for. Now, after owning her boat for a year, she's become a crusader for her new lifestyle.

"I think this is a great life for older women and men that really want to get out of some condo somewhere," she said. "It's such a great, open life. You have the feeling of being outside while being inside -- you're surrounded by windows and water."

Hall's boat is a 1994 Holiday Mansion cruising houseboat, which means it has a bow in the front similar to a conventional yacht and can actually go out on the open water. She's learned to sail the boat, taking it out on the bay occasionally. Hall docks her boat at Bay Bridge Marina in Stevensville, where eight or nine of the marina's 310 slips are occupied by full-time liveaboards, according to assistant manager Chris Boettcher.

A former office interior designer for MCI, Hall intentionally avoided any traditional nautical motifs in decorating her boat, instead choosing the French Provencal look she's always loved. Her color scheme originated with a Picasso print she hung on the galley wall (landlubber translation: kitchen wall) that's swimming with vivid blues, yellows and greens.

Copper and rooster motifs are marks of the Provencal style, and a copper teapot and wooden rooster adorn a shelf over the eating area, which doubles as a desk.

Hall's boat has a master bedroom; a "cuddy cabin" below, which can also be used as a bedroom; two "heads" or bathrooms; and a salon or sitting area. Lift the cushions on the seats in the salon, and you'll find enough room to store 16 life jackets.

All of the boat's amenities are designed to maximize space. Using the cuddy cabin and the salon (with seats that fold into a double bed), plus a couple of air mattresses, Hall has had seven people stay overnight on the boat.

"I wanted a boat that I could hang a chandelier in," she said with a laugh. So a tiny iron fixture with red, yellow and blue shades on its miniature lamps hangs over the kitchen table.

No fish or decoys

"Don't give me anything with fish or decoys," she said. "I just wanted it more homey."

Hall commutes from Stevensville to her job as business manager at Special Olympics Inc. in Washington. She lives on the boat only from April through October, since the marina's water supply is turned off from Nov. 30 to March 30. During those months, Hall lives with her sister in Chevy Chase.

Steve Smede, editor of House Boat magazine, estimates that there are about 50,000 houseboats in the United States and Canada. That figure does not include those who live aboard other kinds of boats. While many liveaboards own houseboats, others choose trawlers or sailboats for more mobility. Most houseboats are designed for lakes or other relatively still waters.

Ridihalgh at Living Aboard said that houseboat owners make up a smaller percentage of the magazine's readers than trawler and sailboat owners.

"Most people that live aboard are going to cruise," said Harriet Wovas, manager of Anchorage Marina in Baltimore. "They can't stay off the water -- it's in their blood."

Artist Richard C. O'Connell Jr., a liveaboard at Anchorage Marina in Baltimore, sold his house and moved onto a Gemini catamaran sailboat after retiring from teaching 10 years ago. "The water is my home. I love it," said O'Connell, 68, who grew up in Middle River. "This is something I've thought about all my life."

O'Connell said he enjoys the feeling of community among live-aboards. "Water people are nice in general," he said. "You help one another when there's storms, and you kind of take care of your neighborhood."

According to Wovas, about 40 out of 510 boats at Anchorage are liveaboards. Not all marinas allow liveaboards, who cause some extra work -- marinas with liveaboards must maintain their piers year-round and pick up pumped-out waste from "heads" more frequently.

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